Untermeyer Gardens a Must-See

This article was originally published in thelarchmontloop.com and updated July, 2022.

The spectacular Untermyer Gardens, now more than 40 acres overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers, is something to behold. The work to restore its centerpiece, a Walled Persian Garden, began in 2011. The results are truly awesome.

In the early 20th century, the gardens were created on the Greystone estate of Samuel Untermyer, a prosperous lawyer, investor, and avid horticulturist, who hired about 60 gardeners and maintained dozens of greenhouses. The scale of the gardens was 3 to 4 times as large as the Rockefeller gardens at Kykuit in Pocantico Hills, and they were designed by the same man, Beaux Arts architect William Welles Bosworth.

Today the main feature of the gardens is the restored Indo-Persian Walled Garden with north-south and east-west canals symbolizing the four ancient rivers of Persia, the rivers of Mughal gardens in India, and the biblical descriptions of Eden. The waterways contain dozens of gurgling water fountains and are bordered by lush plantings.

A Greek-style amphitheater with mosaics and monumental sculpture stands at the northern end of the Walled Garden. References to ancient Greek, Roman, and Italian Renaissance designs are everywhere.

From the lower terrace of the Walled Garden, an impressive set of stone and grass steps cascade down toward the Hudson River to what’s called the “Vista.” Dozens of slender, pyramidal Japanese cedars have been planted in rows on both sides of the steps to draw the eye down to the view. More will be planted this fall to complete the effect, according to Stephen F. Byrns, Chairman of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy.

These evergreens were part of the original Bosworth design but were lost in later years. Bosworth based his design on the famous rows of cypresses leading to a view of Lake Como at the Villa d’ Este in Italy, one of the greatest Italian Renaissance gardens. At the bottom of the steps is the Vista Overlook with two graceful marble columns that frame the view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

Untermyer wanted his gardens to be “the finest in the world,” says Byrns. And now  the Walled Garden is, in fact, considered to be the finest Persian garden in the Western Hemisphere. Byrns notes that plans for the future include restoration of the Temple of Love, plus completion of the the plantings along the Vista staircase.

The gardens are open free to the public Monday through Friday 8 AM – dusk. Saturday and Sunday, Noon – dusk. They are located at 945 North Broadway, Yonkers, NY 10701  tel. 914-613-4502   www.untermyergardens.org

Images courtesy Joyce H. Newman

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Electric Cars: ‘Range Anxiety’

This article was originally published on “thelarchmontloop.com” on March 5, 2021.

If you’re looking for ways to protect the environment and to fight climate change, environmental groups encourage you to consider an electric car (EV) for your next vehicle. But many consumers have worries about the “charging range” –how far the car will travel before you have to re-charge the batteries and whether there are enough charging stations nearby. Is this “range anxiety” real? Or just a myth?

In southern Westchester, happily, it turns out there are many EV charging locations that are easily accessible using the Electric Vehicle Station Locator map from the U.S. Department of Energy. For example in Larchmont, there are two outlets open 24/7 at the Hommocks Road Rink and Memorial Park on Baldwin Road. In Mamaroneck at the Town Center there are two more. In New Rochelle, during business hours , there are two outlets at the Nissan dealership on Palmer Avenue.

However, the myth that an EV will run out of charge before getting to a destination, leaving the driver stranded, has persisted and discouraged consumers from going electric. As of January 2020, only 45,000 EVs had been purchased by New Yorkers, according to the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF).

To address “range anxiety”, the League recently launched an education campaign,”Plug It In, NY” including a series of fact sheets to help consumers make “educated choices” on EVs and to explain how they will be key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

In fact, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reports that the transportation sector now accounts for about 36 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions–more than power stations–and this percentage is growing.

To reduce these emissions, the state is not only increasing the number of EV charging stations, but it is offering EV buyers a Drive Clean Rebate of up to $2,000 off the price of an EV at the time of purchase. (Plus, there may be a sizable federal tax credit depending on the model you purchase.)

Other little-known EV benefits include qualifying for discounts on state Thruway tolls through the Thruway Authority’s Green Pass Discount Plan, and at bridges and tunnels in New York City through the Port Authority’s Green Pass Program. Also, the Clean Pass Program allows EV drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes evenn when driving alone.

Many more facts about EVs are available here.

Agatha Christie’s Gardens: How a Passion for Plants and Poisons Shaped Her Mysteries

2880px-Greenway-13903162624MeganAllenCC copy 2Agatha Christie’s former estate, called Greenway, in Devon, England

This revealing portrait of Christie’s gardening life for the first time reveals the little-known horticultural side of the “Queen of Crime.” Casting new light on her passion for plants and, in particular, poisonous plants, the richly illustrated book shows how these botanical poisons actually shape so many of her most successful stories. For Christie mystery fans and gardening enthusiasts alike, the book delivers new facts about her plots and her favorite murder weapons, joining both mystery writer and garden lover into one creative person. 152 pages. May 11,2020.

Available to download on Apple devices at: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1512064689

60 Acres of Space to Roam in Larchmont, New York

This article was originally published by the larchmontloop.com on April 1, 2020.

The nonprofit Sheldrake Environmental Center offers local residents an amazing, uplifting outdoor space for hiking, bird watching, photographing, meditating, and, of course, dog walking. The Center is an important community resource, especially now, for children and adults.

These days, it’s best to come during the week in the early morning or at early evening while it’s still light. The trails have been getting crowded on the weekends when the weather is nice.

Some hiking trails will take you through woodlands and around the historic reservoir and pond with plenty of wildlife.  You can see geese, cormorants, turtles, a great blue heron,  red-tailed hawk, cardinals, blue jays, and more.

If you bring binoculars, it’s easy to spot a diversity of plants and animals.

The Sheldrake trails are located at 685 Weaver Street, Larchmont, New York. Open from dawn to dusk daily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Elizabeth Blackwell Please Stand Up?

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This article was originally published on the New York Botanical Garden blog “Plant Talk.”

Who is Elizabeth Blackwell? If you Google the name, you’ll see that in 1849 she was the first woman to receive a U.S. medical degree, opening the profession to women. But look again. An Englishwoman with the same name was also the first woman to create the illustrated medical text, A Curious Herbal (at right), which was published in 1737, and she too had a huge impact on the practice of medicine.

The extraordinary story of this talented Englishwoman and botanical artist, Elizabeth Blackwell (c. 1700-1758), is part of the digital collection at the New York Public Library and has been exhibited in the Rondina and LoFaro Gallery of the Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden.

Blackwell’s illustrations deeply impressed many English physicians, botanists, and apothecaries in mid-18th century London where the tradition of the herbal endured longer than it did on the continent. In England the herbals were a close second to the Bible in popularity. And Blackwell’s work was not only unprecedented for a woman of her time, but revealed the grim circumstances she faced as a wife and mother.

Her free-wheeling husband, Alexander, who practiced as a physician, was in debtor’s prison due to a failed, shady business operation. So Elizabeth was desperate to earn money to support her young child and to get him released.

Blackwell's DandelionTrained as an artist, she came up with the idea for a reference book for apothecaries that would include many exotic species of medicinal plants from North and South America, at the time growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. She took rooms in Swan Walk, next to the garden, and began drawing plants from actual specimens, rushing back and forth from the garden, to her husband in prison who drafted descriptions for each plant. The Society of Apothecaries, founders of the garden, helped support her work as did several prominent doctors in the Royal College of Physicians.

From 1737 to 1779, working non-stop, she published four plates every week in installments, until she had produced 500 images. She drew, engraved, and hand-colored each image, managing the work that would normally require several different craftsmen. Much of her daily life and circumstances seem straight out of a Charles Dickens novel like Little Dorrit.

After two years, the complete work was published in two volumes with the lengthy title, A Curious Herbal containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physick.

One example: Blackwell’s illustration of the dandelion (above left), a common wildflower used by apothecaries as a diuretic, describes the root as “about a finger thick and eight inches long full of a white bitter milk.” This substance found inside the whole plant was used to treat skin warts and corns. Blackwell also notes that dandelion leaves were “much eaten as a salad in the spring.” Just right for the edible garden of 1739!

She also drew plants from the New World such as the tobacco plant (below left), whose fresh leaves could be used in ointments for wounds. Its dried leaves could cause vomiting; its dust would destroy lice. Plus, it contains a natural herbicide—nicotine—which is used today as a weed killer.

BlackwellUltimately, Blackwell was able to pay off her husband’s debts and get him released, although eventually she had to sell some of her copyrights as well. Blackwell successfully marketed the book herself, by word of mouth and in journals. Several years later, her husband who had moved to Sweden, was executed having participated in a plot to change the succession to the Swedish throne.

The National Library of Medicine online archive has a virtual copy of A Curious Herbal that you can page through, viewing each illustration and text. You can also view an online version of the volume that is located in the British Library from the collection of King George III.

Oliver Sacks: First Love of Gardens

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This article was originally published in “Plant Talk,” the New York Botanical Garden blog, on May 23, 2019.

Oliver Sacks’ newly released collection of essays, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019), contains a wonderful essay on ferns, one of Sacks’ early and enduring loves.  The essay, called “Botanists on Park,” describes how he joins a troupe of fern hunters—he was a member of the American Fern Society—searching for rare specimens in the dry grit of old railroad beds along Park Avenue in New York City. They would be amazed to discover new varieties.

As an amateur fern expert, Sacks had written a fascinating book about ferns, Oaxaca Journal, published in 2002, when he was already considered “the poet laureate of medicine,” a world-famous neurologist, and beloved professor.

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In this new, posthumously produced book, Sacks writes about being a young boy living in London, and his many, cherished visits to Kew Gardens and the South Kensington museums—especially the garden outside the Natural History Museum. There he was fascinated by long-extinct fossil trees, like Sigillaria, and other “Jurassic”  plants. In his essay “Remembering South Kensington,” he writes:

“I wanted the green monochrome, the fern and cycad forests of the Jurassic. I even dreamed at night, as an adolescent, of giant woody club mosses and tree horsetails, primeval, giant gymnosperm forests enveloping the globe—and would wake furious to think that they had long since disappeared, the world taken over by brightly colored, up-to-date, modern flowering plants.”

Decades later, while Sacks worked at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, near NYBG, he would often take his patients over to the Garden because the plants had an extraordinary calming effect and greatly improved his patients’ conditions. In a chapter called “Why We Need Gardens,” he passionately writes about the crucial therapeutic value of gardens and plants:

“In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens … I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”

Sacks served on the NYBG Board and was awarded the NYBG gold medal in 2011. He died in 2015 at the age of 82.

After reading his final book, perhaps we can best imagine him wandering through the Conservatory’s Palm Court, and its Jurassic collection of plants, breathing the cool wet air in the upland rainforest gallery, and gazing lovingly at all the ferns.

The Truth About Foxgloves

This article originally appeared in “Plant Talk,” the New York Botanical Garden blog, on June 11, 2018.

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In June, purple foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are in bloom at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Tall, striking spires with dozens of little finger-shaped blooms, foxgloves are native all across western Europe. Traditionally cultivated in English borders, there are about 20 different species. They bloom in colors from yellows, pinks, lavenders, and whites to purple, with dark spots inside the blooms.

The leaves form in large clusters during the first year, and there are no blooms. Large and fuzzy green, they look a bit like sage or even spinach. In the second year, the blooms appear and the seeds can eventually be collected for re-planting, or they may naturalize.

Totally Toxic

A folk myth about foxgloves claims that the foxes who make dens in the woodland hills wear the flowers on their paws when they attack rural villagers. Sometimes called “witches’ gloves,” the plant’s toxicity was known for centuries by herbalists. Other common names for the plant are also a dead giveaway to its potent effects, including “witches’ thimbles” and “dead man’s bells”.

The entire plant is poisonous, according to experts. But the leaves, in particular, contain more concentrated toxins.

English botanist William Withering, writing in 1785, was the first to discover the toxic and medicinal qualities of foxgloves. Extracts from the plant contain chemicals called cardiac glycosides—also known as digitalins—used initially for treating some very common heart problems, such as abnormal heart rhythms and symptoms of congestive heart failure, such as swelling of legs.

In the decades to follow, the plant became a significant source of medicine—apothecaries in France reportedly used a painting of the flower as a sort of logo hanging outside their stores to signify their expertise.

In the early 20th century, pharmacologists widely used digitalins for treatment of secondary dropsy (edema) and heart disease. In fact, during World War I in Britain, gardeners would go collecting foxglove leaves in the wild to help the war effort. The leaves were used to extract the medicine.

Meanwhile, for gardeners, one of the most influential garden books at the time, Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll, advocated spreading white foxglove seed into the soil to lighten up the edges of dark woodland paths or to screen old tree stumps. Jekyll advises that gardeners forget about the plant for two years until some tall “stately” white spires actually appear.

Luckily, visitors to NYBG don’t have to wait so long to enjoy the beauty of foxgloves.

How To Mount Staghorn Ferns for a Stunning Display

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This article originally was published in “Plant Talk,” the New York Botanical Garden blog, on May 3, 2018.

Staghorn ferns make a dramatic addition to any indoor plant collection. Botanically, they are epiphytes—plants that thrive while hanging onto threes or hanging in mossy baskets. In tropical environments and in NYBG’s Conservatory, mature staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) look awesome with their huge, tan-colored, shield-like plates and green fronds shaped like antlers. The plates cover fairly shallow root balls that cling to tree trunks or other mossy homes.

The plants get their nutrients from the trees or moss they grow on and absorb water through their fronds. Like other ferns, the staghorn variety is among the most ancient of plants. (There are an estimated 10,500 fern species, according to the American Fern Society, some dating back tens of thousands of years.) The staghorn ferns are found from the Philippines and Australia to Madagascar, Africa, and South America. Ferns do not produce flowers, but are able to reproduce by sending very tiny spores into the air. The spores form on the underside of the fertile fronds.

Not surprisingly, mounted staghorn ferns have become popular decorator plants featured on the walls of Manhattan apartments as well as suburban and country estates. Mounting the plants on wooden boards may seem daunting, but it’s easy to learn how. At NYBG’s Staghorn Fern craft class, instructor Tara Douglass explains all the necessary steps and also how to properly care for your fern indoors.

Mounted staghornDouglass owns the Brooklyn Plant Studio and is an experienced floral and garden designer based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She studied horticulture and botany at The New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and is an ISA Certified Arborist. For six years, Douglass worked in the horticulture department at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. Her commercial retail experience includes a stint at Terrain, the garden and lifestyle store in Westport, Connecticut.

The materials that are provided in Douglass’ class include a wooden board, about 12″ by 16″ for mounting, a plant that comes in a 6″ pot, lots of sphagnum moss for wrapping the root ball, gardeners’ green wire or colorful copper wire, and nails that won’t rust when wet used for fastening the wires around the moss to hold the plant on the board. If you plan to hang the board on a wall, you’ll also need screws to fasten onto the back of the board and more wire.

Douglass’ next class will be offered at NYBG’s midtown location on August 4. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these fascinating ferns at your favorite plant shop.

Remembering Gary Lincoff

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This article originally was published in “Plant Talk,” the New York Botanical Garden blog, on April 24, 2018.

Gary Lincoff taught for more than 40 years at NYBG. He passed away on March 16 after a stroke at the age of 75. For those of us who took Gary’s classes, he remains so alive in our memories—his stories, the coursework he required, and his motivational advice are still working on our minds.

I first met Gary in the spring of 2011. I’m sure if he were alive that he wouldn’t remember me at all from among the thousands of students he taught. But his course “Introduction to Plant Science” was one of the all-time best classes for me.

In his class, which was required for a Horticulture Certificate, we handled plant specimens that Gary provided from 10 major plant families and closely read chapters of Brian Capon’s book Botany for Gardeners. But the most important course requirement for me was keeping a daily journal of plant “events”—what I saw each day on garden walks and how those things changed over time, using my own drawings and plant pressings. For the first time, I felt like a real scientist observing and discovering plants. Gary’s class truly opened up a new world.

How to Keep a Botany Journal

As recently as February 21 this year, Gary kept his own daily journal. He wrote:

“BEST DAY THIS WINTER – FEB 21, 2018 – 78 DEGREES

A DOZEN FLOWERS COME INTO BLOOM

INCLUDING 3 CROCUSES – WINTER JASMINE, KOREAN RHODODENDRON

WINTER ACONITE, FORSYTHIA, PRIMROSE, LOTS OF SNOWDROPS, DAFFODIL LEAVES, ALLIUM, ETC

CORNUS MAS, HELLEBORES”

Gary’s instructions on keeping a journal are classic. They specify that you should use a small notebook—one that would fit in your pocket or in a backpack. He asks you to write just one page per day with a date on every page. He suggests:

“Whether you know its name or not, if you notice a shrub or small tree in bloom, especially ‘out of season,’ it’s an observation worth making. You can describe the flower or the general shape of the plant, or photograph it and note in your journal that you took its picture. Look for changes over time; the flowers will fade, fruit will develop, leaf buds might become more conspicuous. These are all observations of a botanical nature that are appropriate for journal entries.”

He describes how finding “unusual looking fruits, pods, or nuts on the ground under or near a tree or shrub” might be “something worth investigating and writing up in your journal,” because it helps raise questions “like why are there so many acorns underfoot this winter? Or, why does the honey-locust tree (Gleditsia) produce such long pods that no animal seems interested in eating? … Keeping a journal opens your eyes and minds to what’s going on with all the plants around you. What are they doing, and when and how are they doing it, and why? This is studying botany as it reveals itself to you. And it’s yours for the asking.”

Gary’s complete list of journal instructions are on Gary’s website under the link for his NYBG class. There you can also find some amazing samples of Henry David Thoreau’s daily journal from between 1850 and 1860, in which he wrote about plants in the Concord, Massachusetts area, and much more. Gary was passionate about Thoreau.

John Muir and Plant Pressing

Making a set of a dozen plant pressings was a key requirement of Gary’s class. He underscored its importance with a story about John Muir, wilderness advocate/botanist/explorer, “who almost single-handedly helped to establish our National Park System….” Another hero to Gary.

Muir pressed thousands of plants on his travels around the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to a book about his pressings called Nature’s Beloved Son, by Bonnie J. Gisel and Stephen Joseph, Muir’s plant pressings were part of a long tradition by many of the great botanical explorers and naturalists. Linnaeus carried a plant press on his travels, as did Darwin, and the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

Gary enthusiastically describes plant pressing: “It’s a skill-set that’s easy to learn and one that, should you find yourself some day in some out of the way place, whether it’s Papua New Guinea or southern Staten Island, you just might discover a plant that is new to science. Bring a pressing of it back to the New York Botanical Garden, and if it proves to be new to science, you just might become famous overnight!”

Gary’s instructions first describe how to dry a plant specimen:

“Place a plant on top of a piece of plain paper towel, and cover it with another piece. Place this ‘sandwich’ on a flat surface and place books on top of it. Leave for two or three days. Then carefully transfer your dried plant to a piece of pressing paper, to which you will then affix glue or tape, and note your name, the plant’s name, and when and where collected.

“If you are “pressing” three-dimensional objects, like branches or fruits or nuts, the dried objects can be affixed to paper with glue or tape, or the fruits or nuts can be housed inside a small box made of a folded 3″ x 5” or 4″ x 6” note card.”

More Than Mushrooms

Although Gary is widely-known for his pioneering work on mushrooms, having written a best-selling Audubon field guide to North American mushrooms and having led many expeditions and tours for both the New York and North American mycological associations, for me Gary was an inspiration for all things botanical and an evangelist for the whole natural world around us.

Earth Day Theme: Protect Local Species

This article was originally published on April 22, 2019 by the LarchmontLoop.com, an online new site.

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This year’s Earth Day theme is protecting our species. More than 150 fish and wildlife species living in New York state are considered to be endangered, threatened, or of special concern. See a list here.

In fact, scientist believe that our planet is experiencing a gigantic rate of  species extinction that is 1,000 to 10,000 times more than the normal rate. According to the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF), the extreme reductions in plant and wildlife species are “a direct consequence of human activities that have significantly altered natural habitats. Estimates suggest that humans have impacted 83% of Earth’s land surface.”

The more species that go missing, the less biodiversity we have in our environment, and the less stable and strong are the ecosystems in which all species are interconnected.

NYCVEF recommends a whole series of steps that individuals can take to help protect species; for example, at home, using less fertilizer and pesticides; or planting a “pollinator-friendly” garden with native plants.

You can find out more about the importance of biodiversity and the latest steps to preserve diversity here.

Photo: EarthDay.org